1889: Jessie King, the last woman hanged in Edinburgh

Add comment March 11th, 2020 Headsman

Jessie King, the last woman executed in Edinburgh, was hanged on this date in 1889.

She was a practitioner of that distinctive late Victorian industry of baby farming: for a few pounds (literally just £2 to &pound5;) King adopted illegitimate children from pregnant working-class girls who couldn’t bear the financial or reputational cost of rearing them, with the promise of moving them on to loving homes that was often a reality of shuffling them off this mortal coil — either via neglect or outright homicide.

This particular operation was detected when some youths found a bundle where she’d hidden one such body, and a raid upon the apartment King shared with the much older Thomas Pearson revealed two more dead adoptees. Pearson, who could have easily been construed as the prime mover in this operation, was suffered to turn crown’s evidence, and save his own neck by stretching his lover’s. That wasn’t all she was up against in the courtroom: she also faced the adverse medical testimony of Dr. Joseph Bell, notable as the inspiration for the literary Sherlock Holmes character.

Contemporaries doubted King’s mental health, and she attempted suicide to cheat the hangman. Her Catholic confessor unsuccessfully appealed for clemency with the suggestion that she’d been steered into her crimes by the domineering Pearson.

To save Pearson she made the statement which has done her so much injury. She now declares that he in one of the cases did the deed and in the other two, he stood near directing and guiding her in the administration of the [whisky] …

It seems a more likely solution of this terrible crime that this hard-hearted man and unfaithful husband — an aged man! was there directing the unsteady and clumsy hand of a poor woman he had made his slave.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Scotland,Women

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1865: Edward William Pritchard, MD

5 comments July 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1865, tens of thousands crowded Glasgow Green to send off the murderous Dr. Edward William Pritchard … and with him, the era of public hangings in that city.

Pritchard died for poisoning his wife and his mother-in-law earlier that same year, but he might have first killed in 1863. That’s when his 25-year-old servant suspiciously burned to death in a home fire she suspiciously didn’t try to escape. Despite how it looked, Pritchard’s insurance paid up for the incident.

Murder or no, that used up all his escaping-justice karma: there’d be scant deniability next time.

After knocking up another servant in 1864, Pritchard performed an illegal abortion to dispose of the unwanted progeny with the understanding that he’d marry the girl.

Pritchard then found that his increasingly inconvenient wife had taken suddenly and strangely ill. When her mother came to care for her, mom caught the exact same symptoms — vomiting, dizziness. They checked out within three weeks of each other in early 1865, having suffered months of patient, systematic dosing by the medical man of the house.

An anonymous letter, conceivably supplied by an attending physician who naturally had suspicions about these incredibly suspicious deaths, led to the bodies’ exhumation and the ready discovery therein of antimony in lethal quantities. Servants’ testimony affirming the proclivity of others in the household to get sick when they tasted the victims’ food easily nailed down the conviction.

Asked if he had any last remarks on his way to the scaffold, Pritchard replied, “in a firm and clear, but sepulchral, tone of voice, ‘Simply to acknowledge the justice of my sentence.'” (London Times, July 29, 1865)

His posthumous notoriety in Victorian crime pulp is attested by Sherlock Holmes’ tribute in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, published full 27 years after our man’s death: “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland

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Unspecified date: British soldiers by urophagia

Add comment October 7th, 2011 Headsman

Today is the 10th anniversary of America’s post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, two short decades after the Soviets tried the same thing with disastrous results.


Never get involved in a land war in Asia …

In honor of this impressive anniversary, we travel back in time and into the twilit frontier between fact and legend to another century’s intervention in that Graveyard of Empires — the Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878-1880. Dr. Watson was there; maybe even his literary compatriot Sherlock Holmes, too.

It’s too bad we don’t have the services of those excellent detectives in this matter. We can’t date this particular method, or attribute any specific victim to it, or even substantiate the actuality of the practice to our liking (though there are several books by British soldiers of that war which traffick in the report). Frankly, everything about it smells. But we think you’ll agree that execution by urophagia is a story that needs to be told.

The following is an account from a biography of English officer and novelist John Masters. We’ll label it Mature Content both for what it describes and the manner of its description, just to make you really want to savor every word.

War for the Pathans [Pashtuns] was an honourable, exciting and manly exercise, in which each succeeding generation needed to prove itself, but war was also ruthless; no mercy was shown and none was expected. Neither side aimed to take prisoners. The Pathans customarily mutilated and then beheaded any wounded or dead who fell into their hands. Women often carried out these operations. A well-known torture was called the Thousand Cuts, whereby flesh woulds were newly made and grass and thorns pushed into them so that they would hurt horribly. A prisoner might be pegged out on the ground and his jaw forcibly opened with a stick so that he could not swallow, then women would urinate in his mouth until he drowned. Frank Baines, who served on the North-West Frontier and later with Masters in Burma, put it more crudely:* ‘If you got captured, you were not only killed in a lively and imaginative manner, you were carved up and quartered and had your cock cut off and stuffed in your mouth for good measure.’

-John Clay in John Masters: A Regimented Life

* Baines penned this memorable line for his book Officer Boy

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Afghanistan,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Drowned,England,Execution,History,Known But To God,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Urophagia,Wartime Executions

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